Saturday, February 04, 2012

What The Hell Happened To You People?

It was an interesting, intense, short ker-fluffle -- Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation against Planned Parenthood.  1.3 million Twitter posts.  Planned Parenthood won.  For now.  But I have to ask, (as the New York Times put it) "Nancy G. Brinker, the polished Republican donor who founded the Komen after her sister died of breast cancer: " What were you thinking?

The Susan G. Komen organization is noted for its breathtakingly successful media savvy -- smart, slick, well organized, they don't miss a fund-raising trick.  For thirty years they've built a formidable reputation.  Their main event -- the Susan G. Komen Run -- is one of the best known breast cancer fund-rasing events around, all those pink ribbons, pink t-shirts, pink, pink, pink everything. They have ferociously guarded their "brand," and marketed that brand very, very smartly.  In short, they're at the top of their game in understanding the delicate relationship of credibility, trust and hardball all non-profits must play.  And play it they did.  Very, very well.

Which is why their decision last year to allow one new Board Member, Karen Handle, former secretary of state in Georgia and an outspoken opponent of all things Planned Parenthood, to run this organization off into a ditch. The dumbness of that decision is what is so astounding.  Like they suddenly all suffered some kind of sudden brain death and forgot 30 years of PR smarts?

The issue wasn't a new one.  Anti-abortion foes had been picketing its fund-raising events for years, trying to disrupt their races or harassing their sponsors, and so forth. So the Komenites knew, from day one, that their efforts to give grant monies to Planned Parenthood for breast screening was politicized by anti-abortion foes from the beginning.  But Komen soldiered on, trying to keep their efforts out of the politics of abortion by trying to get along by going along, whistling past the graveyard.

Big mistake on two fronts.  The Abortion Wars have been structured by anti-abortion foes into a purely black/white issue: Pro-choice or No-Choice.  Period.  No grey areas.  No cross overs. No exceptions. Nothing. End of discussion. Which means, in this War there are two choices only: Complete Capitulation or Push Back.  That's it.

Komen's Mistake One was it tried to have it both ways: Fund the breast exam/screening portion of Planned Parenthood, which met their own mission goals of preventing/early detection/treatment of breast cancer while distancing themselves from the small percent of abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood.  That, and a hope that playing nice-nice and focusing on their smooth PR machine would keep their skirt ruffles out of the politically muddy trenches. Which was and remains impossible.This war gives no quarter, takes no prisoners, allows nobody to remain on the sidelines.

Mistake Two was when the Komen board decided to separate from Planned Parenthood but kept their plans quiet, hoping nobody would notice.  That one decision is clear evidence that some kind of PR brain death occurred in that Board room.  First rule of any organization is to control the message.  If you're going to make a controversial business decision involving some kind of direction change, mission statement revamps, whatever, you start the roll-out often years in advance, controlling the message every step of the way, so when the change takes place, nobody notices or cares.  They've been prepped, your skirt ruffles have been carefully kept clean, and  if the change is fraught with political hysteria and/or political bullying, all the fingerprints have been removed.

In this particular defunding case, the given reasons for the change didn't even begin to pass the smell test.  And instead of fingerprints, there were huge, reeking, politically muddy boot tracks all over this thing.

The Feb. 4 New York Times story notes, "The Komen foundation itself now finds itself even more caught between these two poles.  'Is it possible for a woman's health organization to stay out of the abortion issue and help all women?' asked Mr. Raffaelli, the Komen board member.  'I don't know the answer to that yet.  What we were doing before was angering the right-to-life crowd.  Then, with our decision in December, we upset the pro-choice crowd. And now we're going to make the right-to-life crowd mad all over again.  How do we stop doing that?'"

The answer, of course, is simple: No.  Not possible to help all women and keep out of the abortion issue.   It's either one or the other and so you pick your side and when threatened, you push back. You can make it clear that your foundation will be taking its mission from any and all anti-abortion organizations and you will refuse to fund any group they do not approve of.  Or you can tell the anti-abortion groups that you are focused on breast cancer, women's health and saving lives and if your grantees don't meet with the anti-abortion group's approval, then they can shove off.

In the Abortion Wars, you cannot have it both ways.  Organizations and their donors and supporters must pick their political path, make their position clear, push back against bullying, coercion, and political harassment, accept the consequences of their choice, and then pull up their big girl panties and set to work with what they've got.

In the real world, that's what "choice" is all about.  

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